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Screening Fireboats of 9/11 With John J. Harvey Fireboat

Phillip Blocklyn, Oyster Bay Historical Society executive director; Daniel Walker, Harvey volunteer; and Jennifer Sappell, LI North Shore Heritage Area executive director introduced a fascinating documentary at the Oyster Bay Community Center about the Fireboats of 9/11 on Oct. 13. The presentation included the volunteer crew of the fireboat the John J. Harvey, ready to answer questions and to impart the history of these workhorses.

Fireboats are part of the Marine Division of the New York City Fire Department and patrol the City’s water ways. Their history is rich, originating back to 1864 when the first fireboat, the John Fuller, was put into service. Even then, New York was the shipping hub and center of business for the western world. By this time the Industrial Age was in full swing, and the ports of NYC were full of vessels, merchandise and danger from the cargo that these ships carried.

Fireboats then, were able to pump 13,000 gallons of sea-water per minute which far exceeded the capacity of land pumpers. Later, fireboats increased to pumping 20,000 gallons/minute with such force that concrete and brick were no match. Fireboats proved to be invaluable over the next 150 years to the City. They fought pier and vessel fires, saving millions of dollars of cargo and lives, including assisting at the World Trade Center site on 9/11. During 9/11, fireboats pumped water for three days as they were the only local water supply. When the Twin Towers collapsed, all of the local water mains in that part of the City were crushed. The fireboats were the only source of water to fight the fire.

NYC Fireboat History

In 1938, then-NYC Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia spent $1 million to build the firefighter John J. Harvey, the most powerful fireboat of its kind, recognizing the need and importance of the Marine Fire Division. The technology turned to diesel/electric that generated power with motors turning propellers. Speed was king. The ability to quickly reach a disaster was paramount to protecting the harbor and safeguarding valuable cargo. Currently, as a result of modern times, and the improvements in shipping, piers and safety, the main mission of fireboats is to respond to waterfront emergencies instead of fighting fires.

Unfortunately, after pumping for three days during the 9/11 tragedy, the firefighter John J. Harvey incurred massive damage to its engines from overheating and also incurred hull damage, rendering her ready for retirement. Today, the Los Angeles based Fireboat II is the king of all fireboats and can pump 38,000 gallons of water per minute while being the fastest fireboat, while maneuvering gracefully through the more narrow west coast waterways.

Meeting the Crew

The John J. Harvey was in Oyster Bay to participate in the Oyster Festival held Oct. 15 and 16. Captain Huntley was absent that night, but the crew members Tim Ivory, Karl Schuman and John Bowne were present to answer questions and tell a few interesting stories about the ship. The vessel was first put into service in 1931 and named after the pilot of the fireboat, Thomas Willet, who was killed on Feb. 11, 1930 while fighting a fire on the Muenchen at the North River Pier 42. A fire had broken out on the Muenchen. The Willet came alongside and her crew started to work on the burning ship. An explosion occurred knocking the Pilot John J. Harvey into the water and killing him.

She immediately became the fastest while pumping and largest fireboat in America.

The John J. Harvey was stationed along the Battery Park seawall for the next 63 years serving the City of New York, finally retiring from active duty in July 1994. She fought such important fires as the fire at Cunard Pier 54 in 1932, the fire on the El Estero, a munitions ship that threatened the entire New York Harbor in 1943, for which the crew received the FDNY’s Medal of Valor.

The John J. Harvey also helped to fight the fire on the French ship the Normandie in 1942, two months after the Pearl Harbor attack, trying in vain to keep the ship afloat, before she rolled over and was sold for scrap. The John J. Harvey was called back into service on September 11th to pump water at the World Trade Center.

In 1957, the John J. Harvey was retrofitted with five new 600hp Fairbanks-Morse diesel engines (original engines were Sterling-Viking gasoline engines) to provide more power and to eliminate the danger of having gas vapors present when fighting fires. Finally, after completing her dedicated duty of protecting the NYC Harbor, she was retired in 1994, saved from the scrap yard and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. Today, she is a floating, working museum, cared for by dedicated volunteers, while still running an occasional outing. Fireboats remain an irreplaceable piece of New York’s maritime history. Restoring and maintaining the John J. Harvey is no small task. She requires capital improvements to ensure her long term survival. Learn more about how you can help by visiting www.fireboat.org.